Jack Charles, a child of the Stolen Generation himself, doesn’t pretend to have all the answers but infamously known as a cat-burglar, drug addict and criminal the Aboriginal elder, more popularly known as ‘Uncle Jack’ has an artistic and community oriented history that few can compete with. And he has his own plans of what would be the best way to say ‘sorry’.
Founder of the first recognised modern Aboriginal theatre company Nindethana Uncle Jack has been a pioneer of the Black Theatre Movement since its inception and his prolific career has included a range of performances both on and offstage. Following the recent success of Jack Charles vs the Crown (which featured at the 2010 Melbourne International Arts Festival and is currently on tour) the dapper gent turns his attention to an upcoming event of national significance: Sorry Day.
“This is our Australia day” says Charles “we need to revive a sense of who we are, a sense of fulfilment and pride and the ability to respect our Aboriginality — and we need to do it now.”
Charles’ history is colourful to say the least. Separated from his family and growing up in a missionary style school for boys he arrived on the Melbourne scene at the age of 17 to be looked upon as a stranger. “I have never been initiated into my Aboriginal community and since the 1970s I have lived on the fringe – and while much of that has been due to my addiction and drugs – I believe there was a visible and demonstrated lack of support and that needs to change.”
Charles’ own journey to kicking the habit and establishing himself as a performance artist is also accompanied by a dream that he’s cherished for a long time: “I need a building” says Charles “I need a space where young people who have suffered the effects of drugs and addictions (and very often jail sentences as well) can come here to reconnect to their lives before lasting damage is done – this is my Nindeebiya program.”
“Sorry day is a chance for us to renew the values we need to keep our Aboriginality alive” explains Charles. “Integrity, honesty, and more transparency need to be made evident and this is to be done across all organisations and services. Most importantly we need a home for these young people. It is a black initiative but for all lost souls because if we don’t then it’s our youth that will suffer.”
The Nindeebiya program is more than just a dream for Charles – it has been a mission for over six years since he went knocking on doors and it doesn’t look like he’s going to stop any time soon. “To be perfect honestly I’d rather take a sabbatical from my performance career and focus on establishing this program” explains Charles “I want our community to be given the chance to chance improve the health of our people. We know by the look in their eyes if they’re not being as black as they should be and we can tell by the whites of their bloodshot eyes.”
And Charles is supported if not by state wide governments or councils then by key figures of both the Indigenous and Non-Indigenous communities who applaud him for his efforts. Shaun Braybrook from the The Wulgunggo Ngalu Learning facility is full of encouragement: “Aboriginal people need to help Aboriginal people. Aboriginal men need to help heal other Aboriginal men and the same for women – this isn’t an easy task but don’t stop knocking on those doors Jacky Charles.”
The respect and admiration go both ways, for Charles sees Wulgunggo Ngalu (which means in the local language “together learning”) as an ideal model upon which to base his own Nindeebiya program. The facility in Gippsland is currently run in conjunction with the Department of Corrections for Aboriginal men who have come into contact with the justice system and who need to fulfill community based orders. What makes this facility different is its strong cultural component that focuses on strengthening cultural identity, carrying out men’s business, including the opportunities for dance, making artefacts and the strong cultural environment in which Aboriginal men are given the opportunity to reconnect with their Aboriginality.
“There is plenty more to be done and we need to have similar centres for women” says Braybrook, “Women that have been incarcerated, children who have been separated from their mothers, broken families – again we need Aboriginal women to help heal our Aboriginal women and reconnect them back and that’s where I would love to see a whole crop of places like what Jack has in mind to pop up all over the state – and I do believe it will happen. It may take time but it will happen.”
Sorry day is a national event of significance at every level. For both Charles and Braybrook, saying Sorry was certainly a step forward but there is much to be done for the Indigenous communities of Australia.